In July 2010, Linda Rill got a call from her son Shawn, who was in Richmond on the day of his driver’s test.
Shawn, then 21, had been frustrated for some time that his younger brother Tyler already had his driver’s licence.
Linda had also been warned by others outside the family not to get her hopes up.
On the phone, Shawn’s words made her heart sink: “I hit someone.”
Shawn hung up, and for the next few hours, his parents paced nervously at home before he showed up at the doorstep, his head down.
Mournfully, he raised his eyes, looked up at his parents, held up a piece of paper and grinned broadly.
It was a rare outward expression of elation, and just as importantly, a sense of humour (albeit a black one).
Shawn has had autism since he was a small child, where at two-and-a-half years old, he suddenly stopped being “normal” and became withdrawn and unable to socialize.
Sitting on the Surrey family’s couch with his parents Linda and Stephan, it’s apparent that Shawn, 26, will talk the least, unless prodded for a response to a question.
“As you can see, Shawn’s very quiet,” says his father. “It’s part of his autistic make-up.”
On the wide spectrum of autism, Shawn sits somewhere in the middle, between those who are uncontrollably hyper and those who are completely withdrawn.
On occasion, Shawn may jumble a sentence, part of a minor speech impediment, and it will take longer for him to perform certain physical tasks.
Over the years, the Rill family has seen its challenges and triumphs with Shawn.
After he was diagnosed, he benefited from pre-school provided by the Surrey Association for Early Childhood Education. His parents say that experienced helped his early socialization.
Years later, Shawn would be an honour student at Princess Margaret Secondary School.
He was still extraordinarily quiet, but by chance, found a social catalyst in scripts, and took on chatty and even singing roles in three school plays, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, A Christmas Carol, and Dracula Baby.
Some teachers told Shawn’s parents that they didn’t even know he could talk before they saw him let loose on stage
When there were no scripts to guide his social interaction, he would revert back to himself.
In sports, he was also solitary, preferring self-challenging pursuit, such as tae kwon do – he’s got a fourth-degree black belt.
Once he graduated from high school, however, the desire for college and a job slammed into a reality that was more difficult than a high school drama class.
His father says potential employers didn’t give him a chance.
“A lot of times when you have to go to apply for a job, you have to be assertive – sure of yourself – and Shawn, because he’s shy and quiet, because of his autism, employers felt that he didn’t really want the job.”
Shawn was interested, he just didn’t appear to be.
Reassessed for autism for the first time after graduating, he applied to Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Access Program for People with Disabilities.
The two-year program helped him with its two academic spheres, work exploration and job preparation, and provided him with experience in the field.
Although it turned out that kitchen prep at places such as Tim Hortons and IHOP were not for him (he was reliable, but too slow in production), Shawn found work at a recycling business.
For the last five years, Shawn has been employed at Cycle Wipers in Bridgeview, turning discarded clothing into industrial rags.
He drives there from Newton five days a week.
“With Shawn going through the Kwantlen program and having the opportunity to be offered a full-time job as a result of the skills he had learned, the end result has shown him how to be a responsible young man,” says his mother.
“With this job he is able to pay for his car insurance, make car payments, pay us token monthly rent, invest in RRSPs, establish good credit, learn how to save from his earnings, as well as buy something that he wants for entertainment purposes.
“Certainly having a job makes him feel he is contributing to society but also gives him a sense of self-worth.”
At home, he’s earned his parents’ blessing to be alone if they’re away.
Shawn also has a few passions: Popular culture, collectibles (his father, too), video games and anything Japan.
The obsession with Japan started with a school project on the country in Grade 6, and culminated in a father-and-son trip in 2012, where Shawn had a smile on his face for 16 days.
“I have never seen him that happy,” says Stephan, who adds that Shawn donated a few thousand dollars of his own money for the trip.
Shawn’s favourite spot was Akihabara, a district in Tokyo full of manga, video games, anime, electronics and computers.
In Shawn’s words: “Holy ground for Japanese nerds.”
Back at home, Shawn’s cat, a seven-year-old rescue, is named Keiko – “The Adored One” in Japanese.
For more information about the Surrey Association for Early Childhood Education, visit www.saece.org. For more information about the KPU Access Program for People With Disabilities, visit www.kpu.ca/aca/appd